New Zealand South Island Penguins

3. Yellow-Eyed
Penguins in the Catlins


Royal Spoonbills

The next morning we got on the road over to the eastern side of the
peninsula. The west side of the island does house the Yellow-Eyed
Penguin Conservation Reserve
, but we decided once again to
skip the
$33/person tour and go in search of free sightings. We had a bit of
driving to do later, so after reviewing
Phil’s list of recommended spots, we chose a shorter hike that might
Hooker’s sea lions which we had never seen. It was a nice hike but no
sea lions or penguins were spotted. This left us without
enough time to detour to Sandfly Bay, which has a blind for Yellow-eyed
Penguin viewing, though we didn’t expect any luck there before 3pm
anyway. So, back to the car and the drive
along the peninsula, which was full of interesting bird sightings,
including Royal Spoonbills, lovely little bays and lots more green
hills before it tipped us back into Dunedin. After a brief tour of the
town, it was time to head down the Southern
Scenic Route
to our
camp in the

The next day we retraced our route from our camp at the ridiculously
cheap and very civilized DOC
grounds in Papatowai
all the way back
to Nugget Point at the northern end of the Catlins with the faint hope
of seeing elephant seals and Hooker’s sea lions. On the walk
the lighthouse on the point, we passed far above some sort of marine
mammals in the rocks, but even with binoculars weren’t
certain if
they were more fur seals or sea lions. Out in the gusty winds at the
lighthouse, though, we did finally see the huge sea lions out among the
nugget rocks just offshore. From there we pulled into the
Roaring Bay which was a promising
Yellow-eyed Penguin beach. It was midday so we weren’t very hopeful,
but the sign at the carpark
listed December as a time when they came intermittently during the day
to feed chicks so we decided to give it a try. 

After lunching in the car while the wind
attempted to disassemble the vehicle, we ventured down to the viewing
blind. It was empty, as was the beach, and with no wind and a beautiful
beach to look
at we wished we’d thought to bring the lunch down there.
about 15 minutes of waiting and watching fur seals on the far
of the beach, a penguin burst forth from the waves and began a hurried
waddle across the sand toward the dunes. This solitary traveler was
over twice the size of the little Blues we’d seen- they are the world’s
4th largest and wear proper eveningwear. With binocs in
daylight, we were treated to a great show as the responsible parent
dragged a belly full of fish back to the family hideaway. We felt
guilty laughing when it tripped onto its face over a stick of
driftwood, but laughed easily watching it hop up the rocks and fan its
wings to dry.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin

Yellow-Eyed Penguin Drying

We felt quite lucky, especially when it chose to stop for
preening in a very clear area facing directly at us. After a few
minutes, though, it disappeared into the dunes to deliver lunch. We
suspected that when it arrived home its partner would head out
fishing, so we alternated between watching the dunes and watching the
beach to see if we’d get lucky twice. Over the next half an
or so, as a few other people entered and left the blind, two more birds
came in from the sea, and two spouses headed out.
Surprisingly, every single newcomer paused at least briefly in the
small rocky clearing where the first had modeled for us. Eventually we
had to put
the camera and binoculars away and head into the thriving metropolis
of Owaka for petrol and supplies before 5:00 closing time.

We ended the day with  a walk along the estuary behind our
poking in tidepools and harassing little crabs. The next morning was
clear but dewy making camp breaking slower than hoped with Te Anau as
our next appointed lodging and still more Catlins and Southern Scenic
Route ahead. But the summer days were at their longest so we stuck with
our plan and headed first to the
petrified forest in Curio Bay
. This
proved to be a site that we found worth the detour, but which
probably wouldn’t hold the attention of the kiddies. Parking on
the cliff, we had merely to descend a staircase to the tidal level
(covered at high tide) to immediately encounter dozens of 180 million
year old stumps and logs. Most were of course long since converted to
stone, but we were shocked that some bits still had the texture of
wood. We watched most people return to their cars after just a few
minutes. We stayed a little longer to look at the tide pools, watch the
bull kelp churn, and see if we could spot any of the Yellow-eyed
Penguins that the signs warned us not to disturb. Having no luck, we
drove back to the adjacent point which was highlighted for
Hector’s dolphin spotting. We were again unsuccessful, but
horribly disappointed. We all felt quite satisfied with the quality of
viewings we had already managed to achieve for free, and there was no
need to regret our choices as we took off to Slope Point and then the
drive back up the West coast.


  • The charming New Zealand
    Penguin Map
    using Google Maps at the beginning of this article is still in its infancy and not yet
    comprehensive, but has good info and is worth a look. You can click the penguins for more info about the viewing sites.

  • You can order free brochures for the Southern Scenic
    Route and the Catlins from Visit Southland.
  • Some of the tours we skipped were well recommended in
    Lonely Planet and elsewhere. The New
    Zealand Penguins site
    has a fairly comprehensive list of
    operators along with the free viewing sites under each
  • Here’s another site
    by an interesting group looking after the Yellow-eyed Penguins


New Zealand South Island Penguins — 5 Comments

  1. Little Blue Penguins can also be found in the Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island. The most accesible place to visit them is by visiting Motuara island, a one hour water taxi from Picton. Motuara Island is a predator free island and home to the Saddleback which is now extinct from the mainland.

  2. Thanks for this tip! We have since seen Little Blues in the Marlborough Sounds, too, but for the purposes of this trip we were focusing on the larger breeding grounds where we would be more likely to ensure close sightings.

  3. Pingback: Perceptive Travel Blog » Blog Archive » Penguin Places in New Zealand’s South Island

  4. The Blues seem to be around all year and most species seem to be nesting in early spring (September), so you should be all set.

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